“I want to apologize. I recognize that this moment is a deeply painful one—internally and externally,” wrote Facebook’s VP of public policy, Joel Kaplan, in a Sep. 28 note to Facebook staff. This followed the publication of photographs showing Kaplan’s attendance at Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kaplan’s presence in the hearing room led to a wave of objections voiced on internal message boards by Facebook employees. As one employee opined: Kaplan “knew that this would cause outrage internally, but he knew that he couldn’t get fired for it. This was a protest against our culture, and a slap in the face to his fellow employees.”
Initially, company executives appeared to defend Kaplan, who has for years counted Kavanaugh as one of his closest friends. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that Kaplan had broken no rules with his attendance at the hearings, and on Oct. 3, Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook VP, weighed in, writing that “it is your responsibility to choose a path, not that of the company you work for.” Yet the backlash continued to mount, and the next day, Bosworth walked his declaration back: “I spoke at a time when I should be listening and that was a big mistake. I’m grateful to employees who shared feedback and very sorry that my actions caused employees pain and frustration when what they needed was better support and understanding from leadership.”
At Facebook, Kaplan and Bosworth were viewed by many employees as being on the wrong end of the opinion spectrum in an environment dominated by those on the political left. In today’s increasingly tribalized climate, transgressions that step out of line with the left often lead to demands for apologies—the more humbly offered, the better. Apologies have become the ritualized mechanism to avoid permanent professional and/or social banishment.
A similar dynamic operates on college campuses. For example, in Oct. 2017, the Columbia University Democrats published an op-ed in the Columbia Spectatorspurred by the College Republicans’ decision to invite a series of controversial speakers to campus. In the op-ed, the Columbia University Democrats addressed the need to respond to the upcoming speaking events, and expressed reservations about the effectiveness of shout-downs, while simultaneously sympathizing with students participating in those efforts.
However, the blowback from the op-ed led the Columbia University Democrats to publish a follow-up letter to the editor in the Columbia Spectator a few weeks later featuring a remarkable string of mea culpas, including “We, the Columbia University Democrats Executive Board, retract and condemn our op-ed,” “This statement is far too little and too late, but necessary all the same,” “We must change without putting it on others to teach us and without looking for any kind of acknowledgement for doing so,” and “We have not shown up for our community in a way that reflects our values.” This self-flagellation is even more remarkable given the measured and reasoned op-ed they were bending over backwards to “retract and condemn.” Yet, the op-ed diverged from the dominant campus narrative in a way that was deemed unacceptable. Once that threshold had been crossed, a full-throated apology became the only available path to redemption.
While transgressions offensive to the left often include voicing unpopular political opinions, they can also include simple bad timing even when expressing locally popular opinions. For instance, on Oct. 8 at Scripps College, there was an anti-Kavanaugh protest scheduled for noon. But then the organizers realized that the same day was Indigenous People’s Day at Scripps. They promptly rescheduled the protest and apologized: “We want to deeply apologize for scheduling this event on the same day as the 2nd annual Indigenous People’s Day. Monday is a day for indigenous and non-indigenous allies to stand in solidarity and acknowledge the genocidal mission system that enslaved and killed 80% of Natives living on this land.”
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with apologies, or apologies in a political context. After all it’s eminently reasonable to apologize for acts that are objectively offensive to people regardless of political affiliation. Consider, for instance, the recent apology by Michigan Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James after one of his campaign ads inadvertently included an image of a swastika pinned to a bulletin board in a hallway scene captured by the camera. James stated, “We should have caught this error, and we didn’t, and there’s no excuse. I’m responsible for everything that our team does and fails to do, and I will do everything in my power to make sure this never, ever happens again.” James’ apology seemed heartfelt, uncoerced, and apolitical, despite being issued during a campaign for elected office.
However, the emergence of the ritualized apology as the mechanism to prevent a loss of favor with the political left is an entirely different phenomenon—and one that is rapidly becoming a powerful tool to shape behavior in ways that are amplifying the leftward pull among progressives. The common thread in each case is a familiar sequence that begins with an unpopular or poorly timed statement or action that spurs a rapidly growing wave of objections. Offenders are ostracized, accompanied by the unspoken question of whether they will be completely cast out of the social group or whether they can redeem themselves in a way that brings them back into the fold. This is where ritualized apologies come in: Unpopular political opinions or poorly timed statements that go against a certain set of political beliefs now require restitution.
Under the unwritten rules that increasingly circumscribe discourse in academia, Silicon Valley, and beyond (some of which we’ve described here), there is never an acceptable manner or moment to express certain opinions. The louder the objections, the more effusive the apology must be. And in addition to providing atonement, apologies also serve as a form of virtue signaling, both for those who demand them and those who issue them.
We tell our children to apologize when they break something. Yet, what does it mean when apologies are demanded as the price of expressing opinions that fall outside the narrow zone of permissibility defined by the loudest voices in the room? The inevitable result is an increase in self-censorship.
One of many disturbing consequences of the increased polarization in American society is the erosion of vibrant discourse, which can only occur if respectful disagreement is not an oxymoron and if dialog remains open both within and across political lines. While there has certainly been an impoverishment of discourse on the right, the trend towards demanding ritualized apologies—and the resulting pressure to self-censor—has been largely a feature of the left. If we are to have any hope of successfully addressing today’s many social and political challenges, we will need to restore a culture of public dialog that welcomes a diverse range of views, including those that differ from our own.